Future of cities

The UK’s largest cities and towns are where we come together to work, live and play. The pandemic has reminded us that, with the benefits that come from city life, there also come risks. But the lessons from the 6,000-year history of the city are clear: they survive, adapting to and overcoming the challenges of disease, conflict and economic change.

What does Covid-19 mean for the future of cities?

Our research has shown the extent to which the pandemic has impacted people’s day-to-day lives, demonstrating that those living in cities and large towns have been hit the hardest by Covid-19.

Centre for Cities’ most recent three-part event series looks at the future of cities from three perspectives; working from home, city living and city leisure time, exploring how the pandemic has prompted changes in these areas and debating what this will mean for the economy and society going forward.

How has Covid-19 impacted urban living?

The rise in home working due to Covid-19 may have weakened the link between a person and their place of work, but our sense is that the notion of the city as a place to live has both survived and flourished during the pandemic.

  • There has been no “demise of the city”, but the pandemic has changed how we think about space
  • The demand for properties demonstrates the trade-off between city centres and the countryside, whilst commuting belts remain popular
  • Net zero and changing consumer preferences are driving supply considerations
  • Going forward, the importance of cities will endure, but what that looks like in practice remains unclear

Will the pandemic change how we think about leisure, socialising and shopping?

With footfall slowly increasing but still at pre-Covid levels in many cities and large towns, discussions are now focused on the consequences of the pandemic for local high streets, how retail has adapted and the role of culture in encouraging people back to city and town centres.

  • Cities are reclaiming their role as centres of consumption, but high streets’ recoveries will depend on the return of office workers
  • The pandemic has accelerated a rethink of the role of the high street, driven by customer demand
  • This reframing of the high street has also led to a change in the use of space, and over the medium term owners will need rethink how they maximise value in this way
  • Going forward, repurposing space will continue to be a key consideration, but high streets cannot thrive without structural issues being solved

How will working from home change our cities?

As the long-term impact of Covid-19 becomes clearer and the nature of work changes to adapt to it cities must change too. This will have implications for the economy, working and social life, infrastructure, planning and design.

Panel speakers at our recent event in partnership with L&G made the following key observations when exploring the potential long-term impact of working from home:

  • The pandemic has merely accelerated pre-existing office space trends, rather than creating new ones
  • Office working provides many benefits, but employers will have to adapt to workers’ needs
  • Access to talent remains the key consideration for businesses assessing where to locate
  • The demand for more amenity-rich office space has grown

What effect has working from home had on cities?

The proportion of people able to work from home is often overstated. Our estimates suggest that people able to work from home are a minority in every single city and large town in the UK. London, Reading and Edinburgh have the highest shares of workers able to work from home – more than four in ten. Meanwhile, in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke just two in ten people can work from home.

However, it is likely that the pre-lockdown working practices will change, with many people continuing to work from home for at least some of the week. However, this will not be a cost-free decision; many city centre shops and restaurants depend on custom from office workers and are likely to struggle if their weekday sales shrink.

While many have adapted smoothly to working from home, the benefits of face-to-face interaction are hard to replicate and working remotely means that we miss out on the spontaneous flow of ideas and the sense of camaraderie that being in an office creates. We will continue to need spaces to come together, collaborate and build relationships. Offices and co-working spaces are natural places to do this and city centres remain the most convenient places to locate them.

An overview of how Covid-19 impacted urban life

The beginning of the pandemic back in March 2020 and subsequent introduction of national lockdowns saw a dramatic fall in mobility and public transport use in UK cities as millions of office workers quickly shifted to working from home.

Since then, many city centres have struggled; high street footfall plummeted and sales in the retail and hospitality industries fell, which put millions of local service jobs at risk.

That said, and while it is too early to predict the long-term effect that the pandemic will have on urban places, we consider the recession brought on by Covid-19 to be very different to previous ones and so we should expect the UK economy and many of its cities to experience a sharp bounce back.

Now, with the economy gradually starting to reopen and restrictions lifted it’s likely that we’ll see changes in UK cities over the coming months.

What does the future hold for UK cities?

Covid-19 has undoubtedly shaken urban places to their core, but we should be cautious about rushing to the conclusion that the pandemic signals the death of the city.

Cities have always been centres of disease as well as prosperity. Density has its downsides as well as upsides and yet historically cities have survived and thrived, continuing to function as places where people gather to do trade, to learn and to have fun.

Cities will lead our economic recovery

While every part of the UK has been affected by Covid-19, UK cities and large towns have been hit the hardest, becoming unemployment hotspots. For this reason, they will play a particularly important role in creating jobs as we emerge from the pandemic.

Our research with HSBC UK examined growth patterns within the UK’s seven-year jobs miracle to inform how new jobs can be created as the Government looks to build back better and level up the country. This research identified that if patterns of the past persist, cities and large towns will be our main job creators post-Covid.

What should cities do as the nation recovers from Covid-19?

There are several things that national and local government can do to support their areas’ economic and social recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.

  • Work with business groups to encourage workers back where appropriate
  • Make public transport safe and clean, launching a public information campaign encourage people to use public transport again once it is safe to do so
  • Establish a £5 billion City Centre Productivity Fund to make their city centres more attractive places to do business
  • Implement policy that supports job creation, specifically to help high street businesses and the hospitality sector find their feet again
  • In expensive cities build affordable housing close to jobs, cycle routes and public transport. This will reduce the need for low and middle-income people to flat-share
  • Introduce car-free zones, expand active travel and reprioritise roads and parking space for other uses – bars, restaurants and shops
  • Invest in parks and public outside space where people without gardens can socialise safely
  • Provide city centre workspaces for high-skilled workers that suit more flexible ways of working

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